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Report Calls For “Radical Changes” To Colorado River Management

U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

A recent report from Colorado River experts says it’s time for radical new management strategies to safeguard the Southwest’s water supplies. It’s meant to inform discussions on how to renegotiate certain parts of the Law of the River that will expire in 2026. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke about the report with Jack Schmidt, director of the Center for Colorado River Studies at Utah State University.

Talk to me the situation today in the Colorado River Basin with drought and climate change.

In the year 2000 Lake Powell was essentially full or nearly full. At about the year 2000 we went into a protracted period of reduced runoff that persists to this day…. If you’re going to keep your use of water high and you’ve got less water is coming in, guess what, the reservoirs begin to—you withdraw water out of the reservoirs. That’s why we have reservoirs. So everything was working the way it was supposed to, except that the drought kept going on. At some point it was like, whoa, we got problems here…. And so we keep cutting agreements, which are: how to share the pain of drought? We have an agreement—the Law of the River is what it is—but you can’t make water up, so if there isn’t enough water to go around you’ve got to deal with it… This new white paper that we produced is essentially an exploration of: what if it stays this dry? What if it gets drier?

One of the findings of your report is that the incremental changes in the Law of the River that you’ve been describing, really aren’t enough anymore. Can you talk about that?

There have been two kinds of incremental changes: making really small decreases in consumptive use, and then trying to operate our way out of the problem—how we manage storage in Powell and Mead, how we shift shortage from Flaming Gorge…. What we show is that if the drought that we are in today continues for another twenty or thirty years, then these small changes are not going to be sufficient…. The only way to solve the problem is by dealing with it in a larger systematic way. Now… one part of that solution is actually easy. That easy solution is for the Upper Basin states to consider abandoning their imagination, of how much water they might use in the future, and to deal with the reality of how much water they use now…. And at the same time if the Lower Basin begins to decrease its use, the good news is, we actually can sustainably live within these bounds.

You’ve talked about how making any kind of radical changes is politically difficult, how are we going to get there, what do we need to get there?

We need a full societal conversation about how to use the water supply the Colorado River provides in the best way that helps the nation. I think we need to move away from concepts like “our water” and “your water” … We have a nation, that we’re all in this together… and we certainly have many communities, both some cities and Native peoples, who have a long tradition of using water in the most careful and sustainable way. That is the inevitable mentality that we must pursue over the long term.

Thank you so much, I appreciate it.

Thanks a lot, see you.


Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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